Family First Act: “Peter to Pay Paul” Objections Miss the Mark

As the words of opposition to the Family First Preservation Act of 2016 have flowed in – most of them from interested state, county and advocacy parties in California – Youth Services Insider has noticed an almost ubiquitously used argument, with the same anecdote as a supplement.

The argument goes something like this: We are all for new prevention-oriented services in IV-E, but not at the expense of funding for other important child welfare services.

And that is followed with some version of this: As Rep. Lloyd Doggett said at the House Ways and Means hearing about the bill, Family First is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Chronicle’s job is not to judge for or against the bill; we are here to foster public dialogue on this and many other issues in the child welfare and juvenile justice fields. But it is worth noting that this line of logic has somewhat distorted the discussion on Family First.

The “Peter to pay Paul” argument suggests that this is an act solely about preventing the use of foster care, which offsets the cost of doing so in part by cutting back drastically on federal support for congregate care.

Not the case.

This legislation began as a marriage between the policy goals of two Senators on the Finance Committee. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was pushing legislation to open up the IV-E entitlement for a large array of prevention services. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wanted to cut off pretty much all federal support for congregate care of children under the age of 13, and make it really hard to get federal dollars for older kids as well.

So this bill was originated to do two things at once, not pay for one with another. There are plenty of supporters of the prevention services who don’t feel that way, who are simply willing to accept the congregate restrictions to achieve the prevention. But both Senators have already made concessions that limit the scope of their policy ambitions to make the bill politically viable.

Doggett did indeed say at the hearing that the bill “takes money from Peter to pay Paul.” Here’s what he said next:

“Money is taken from congregate care, which I do think we need to phase out of, though I do realize that last month in Texas they were so [overwhelmed] with reference to our foster children that over 60 of them were spending the night in state offices.”

So to count him as a reference against the cuts to congregate care is a bit disingenuous.

What he really objected to was the delay on the “delink” on IV-E adoption assistance, which was included as an offset. Nobody really wants to delay that delink; it’s just part of paying for this bill. It is worth noting that pretty much all of the adoption-oriented national advocacy groups support this bill, even with that delay.

We say none of this by way of endorsing or objecting to Family First. It just needs to be said, in YSI’s humble opinion, that the discussion seems to have veered away from the true nature of the legislation. The bill includes an offset on adoption spending. The limits on congregate care are one of the bill’s central goals.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at